John Bickerton Trio: Drinking From the Golden Cup
The cover gets your attention, even before the music comes on. On the front, all is peaceful: three birds in flight form the golden cup of the title, from which they drink. Expecting a placid “sounds of the seasons” album, you turn to the back and see those enigmatic titles. “Don Quixote and Don Juan Meet Their Fate in Brooklyn”? “Midnight Epiphany on Westbound 46”? They sound like avant-garde “it could mean anything” titles. So: is it gentle or experimental? Yes.
Playing parallel with both hands, Bickerton states the lush theme of the title. While stalwart bass offers deep support. Tim Horner’s drums are hyperactive, seemingly unrelated to anything else. Bickerton’s solo muses a bit, then joins Horner in his inquisitive dash. The tone remains soft and no bombs are dropped, but the scene has changed. The left hand rumbles; the right hand returns to the theme. Ben Allison’s bass twitters and chirps in the higher reaches, sounding here like Charles Gayle’s bassists. Horner dabbles on bells and whistles before hitting the cymbals. Bickerton returns as he started, dignified and beautiful as the drums go kinetic. It’s like we’ve traveled a circle, and in a way we have.
The moods keep changing, and they keep changing in different ways. Allison bounces along as he introduces “Meet me in the Playground”; Bickerton rings high, as if he’s the dismissal bell. Bass and piano play the theme, but not together; Bickerton then bends these into a slightly different theme and he goes faster, taking the drums with him. The playful theme is gone, and what remains is a bit ominous: rumble in the playground? A brief bass solo takes us back to the theme, and Bickerton gets tense, his notes ringing anxiety. Suddenly, the notes return to a theme hinted before, and Bickerton skips merrily away. Many moods, few answers. A fascinating enigma – like this album.
“Snowfall” starts with solo piano and a grand theme: with a classical tinge, this is similar to a George Winston mood piece. The wistful touch continues, and cymbals wash up the shore. Bass comes in, and the piece gets stronger, while maintaining its mood. Horner is busy as he was in “Drinking”, but with more purpose: a soft wave of sound to underscore the piano. Again the bass plays high, here sounding like a cello as he steps among the notes. Bickerton gets urgent in the middle, and we expect another sound explosion, but no: it subsides, and the somber mood prevails.
“Last Dance of the Fading Memories” starts imperceptibly – a high whine that proves to be Allison’s bow, a low flute moves from speaker to speaker, an insistent piano line, repeated forever. We also hear rattling percussion, chirping bass, and a static-like bowed part, deep in the mix. It isn’t a song as much as a mood, and that’s the point. “The Common Wealth” (great title!) has its time (6/8 on theme, 4/4 on solos) stated more on piano than drums. Horner stays mostly on the beat, though there are times he breaks free. There’s a “timeless” interlude, and a decidedly modern set of exchanges.
“Midnight Epiphany” is slow, soft, atmospheric, and hopeful. The theme is simple, ordered, and heartfelt. While Horner is sometimes too active, I like it here, little patters in the background as Bickerton has his reverie. The tempo rises and Bickerton gets louder, and no less hopeful. A middle sectiion introduces sour notes, as doubt begins to creep in. But soon it passes, and the peace returns. It’s a joy, and the best track. On a similar tack is “Always Know the Way Home”, charged with perky bass and tambourine. As in “Epiphany”, Bickerton gets worried in the middle (dissonance, a parody of the theme) but finds his way out in full spirits.
It’s an adventure; tunes and musicians veer off in odd directions. But for those who like to listen, there is much intrigue, surprise – and beauty – to be found here.